Climate Deniers Part I: Sun Tzu

To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape.

-Sun Tzu

Every once in a while I am asked a very troubling question: “Do you believe in climate change?” The phrasing “do you believe in” or any variation thereof feels like ice water being injected my spine. It demonstrates that the conservation community has all but botched the trial on climate change. If this were a criminal case, we provided means, motive, and intent, but couldn’t counter the defense’s wordplay, trickery, and jargon-laden half-truths.

Manifestations of this loss keep coming up. A few weeks ago I visited some old friends. Over a cocktail (or two), climate change worked its way into the conversation. Though not climate deniers per se, they fall somewhere in the skeptical-to-unconcerned range on the alarmist-to-denier continuum. And they are skeptical because, like most Americans, they don’t have time to fact-check the barrage of climate-related information they hear from myriad sources, including some that suggest climate change is not affected by human activity. These hard-to-check impressive sounding “facts” are the simultaneous danger and strength of climate denier’s misinformation campaign; they somehow transform scientific evidence into a viewpoint in a political debate. For those interested in forestalling serious climate legislation, a politicized hung jury in an increasingly partisan society is exactly what a win looks like. But, moral high ground or not, this is as much on those of us who see climate change as a major challenge as it is on those who argue against action or its existence.

Worse, the combined politicization and evident reality of climate change is a double-edged sword. Those who deny climate change have perverse disincentives to back away from their intransigence. They are in a corner: continue to deny humanity’s most pressing challenge or walk away from the denial discourse and face serious political ramifications in terms of their own legitimacy. It’s a nasty paradox. The scientific community and its political allies have, contrary to Sun Tzu’s advice, left our “enemy” no way of escape.

Take, for example, Marco Rubio – an outsized voiced in the Republican Party. When Rubio simultaneously denied climate change and announced his interest in the presidency my reaction was predictably visceral. Yet despite a driving temptation to lash out over his ignorance/delusion/lack of integrity, I no longer think vilification of deniers helps the climate discourse. Particularly whenever it takes the form of left vs. right. Whether he runs for President or remains a Senator, Rubio could face extraordinary political backlash and de-legitimization should the Republican Party suddenly start to embrace the science of climate change. This is why I believe the Republican Party has shifted from accepting the reality of climate change (see President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union) to the evolving party line of “La La La I can’t hear you” or “I’m no expert, but [insert economic platitude].”

Trapping our “enemies” in a particular corner of the climate change debate, and allowing the resultant discourse to be viewed as a left-right issue, has presented us with a deadlock that inhibits further progress. Maybe its time we stop fighting dogma with logic and politics with science. These are flawed strategies; it is asymmetrical warfare. Converting climate deniers is not an issue of showing them the science – we have done that. It has failed. It continues to fail. What we must do is find a graceful way out for the climate skeptics that we – I, for sure – have so long vilified. This is not to suggest we should let up on correcting the widespread dissemination of misinformation (John Oliver’s piece on this is perfect, if you haven’t watched it, do it now.). Only that accidental or intentional vilification offers little to the cause.

Our focus need be dispassionate advancement of meaningful climate change policy. We need to change the conversation and demonstrate the big Truth of climate change legislation: that it appeals to conservative ideals, even if not certain right-leaning constituents. This needs to be made more explicit. The Republican Party prides itself as responsible, long-term planners (see the budget discourse), yet are unconcerned about the widespread economic effects of climate change? Or the myriad impacts on impacts on national security outlined here? It just doesn’t add up.

So here is my proposition to those who recognize the importance of climate change but have been painted into a political corner: tell the conservation community what you need to advance meaningful policy without sacrificing your ideals, and yes, political ambitions. I am done shouting and am very ready to listen. Or to put it in the [cleaned up] words of one of an old baseball coach, “lead, follow, or get the [heck] out the way.”